Can NASA's Orion program reinvigorate human spaceflight?

NASA's human spaceflight program has been struggling with the same problem since the Apollo program: It doesn't have enough money to do the really exciting stuff. Orion's mission to Mars is NASA's latest attempt to address the issue, but the numbers still might not add up.

Spectators cheered as NASA’s Orion spacecraft atop a rocket lifted off from the Cape Canaveral (Fla.) Air Force Station Dec. 5.

Rising on a tongue of flame and easing to a gentle splashdown in the Pacific Ocean nearly 4-1/2 hours later, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s newest spaceship for human exploration made its debut earlier this month in a virtually flawless initial test flight.

Dubbed Orion, the craft has been hailed as NASA’s first step toward putting humans on Mars by the 2030s. Indeed, its purpose is to reinvigorate the agency’s human spaceflight program in the post-shuttle era.

But look deeper at Orion’s potential path to Mars, and the assumptions surrounding it, and the way ahead appears to be littered with question marks.

What will Orion do before then? Will it make enough flights to justify the program? Are NASA budgets big enough to develop the technologies needed for interim missions, let alone realistically fund a trip to Mars? In a time of fiscal austerity, will subsequent presidents and Congresses even want to make that commitment?

Since the last American set boots on the moon in 1972, politicians and NASA officials have struggled with a stubborn question: What now? The money needed to send humans to intriguing places beyond low-Earth orbit is, well, astronomical. The fall of the Soviet Union made it harder politically to justify such big budgets for human spaceflight.

Orion and its goal of a journey to Mars give NASA a fresh start. And the agency is already applying lessons learned from the recent past, looping in other countries to help pick up the tab for the spacecraft.

But the question remains: Can NASA execute a human space-exploration program on tight budgets? With Mars rovers and probes sent to the outer solar system, NASA has worked wonders with its unmanned missions. In many ways, Orion and the journey to Mars represent a test of whether the agency can do the same with its manned-exploration program.

On the plus side, America’s astronaut corps appears to be excited again.

“I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an astronaut – past, present, or future – who wouldn’t love to fly in Orion,” said Rex Walheim, a space shuttle mission specialist and an astronaut liaison to the team building the craft, following the Dec. 5 test flight. “This is the true exploration that we live for.”

But NASA’s current plans for human exploration of space could span six presidential elections and a dozen sessions of Congress. How solid or consistent will Washington’s willingness to send astronauts on deep-space exploration missions be? 

“It’s just impossible to predict,” says Ann Karagozian, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of California at Los Angeles who has served on advisory and study panels for both US military and civilian space programs.

Only once-a-year launches

NASA has two more Orion flights, including the first crewed mission, slated between now and the end of 2018. From that point on, Orion is expected to fly one mission a year. The pace stands in stark contrast to launch rates that averaged two a year for the Mercury astronauts, one every two months for the Gemini program, and one every five months for Apollo’s 10 crewed missions.

Why the discrepancy? Budgets will drive the goals and pace of missions, says Jason Crusan, who heads NASA’s advanced exploration systems program. Each Orion mission will aim to test-drive or refine new technologies being developed to support human operations in deep space. Given NASA’s financial realities, it’s possible those may come ready only about once a year.

The effort is akin to building Rome, says Mary Lynne Dittmar, an aerospace consultant who worked on a National Research Council (NRC) report on deep-space human exploration published in June. Successive emperors accepted that process “as a given.”

Sending humans to explore destinations in deep space is no different, she says, but it’s uncertain how clearly politicians and the public understand that.

One solution might be to move the agency off a year-by-year budget and onto one that spans multiple years or comes out of a revolving fund, a 2012 Space Foundation report suggested.

Yet the report also suggested that NASA needed a more focused purpose for a human spaceflight program that, during the shuttle era, essentially became a series of round trips to the space station. The report suggested that NASA’s human spaceflight program should pioneer humanity’s expansion into space: NASA should be among the first to arrive at a destination – the moon or Mars, for instance – with the idea of opening it for later use or development by others.  Likewise, the agency should pioneer technologies that could work not only for human spaceflight to a particular destination, but for other uses as well.

NASA already has embraced the idea with the new Space Launch System that Orion uses, for instance. The rocket is powerful enough to send robotic science missions to the outer solar system directly. Currently, they need gravitational boosts from planets in the inner solar system to get there. This would substantially shorten the time it takes to arrive at Jupiter’s moon Europa, for instance.

Before Mars, uncertain steps

For Orion, the question of where to go before heading to Mars is still debated. Some argue that it should return to the moon and establish a human presence. The Obama administration’s chosen path is to capture a small asteroid and haul it into a stable orbit around the moon. There, astronauts could gather samples and learn how to tap such objects for resources to refuel rockets in space with propellants made there.

Dr. Dittmar and others also point to a deeper issue, though: Even when spread over 20 years, NASA’s current budgets are not big enough to send someone to Mars. The more optimistic estimates of such a mission run at about $250 billion over several decades. Currently, “the resources allotted are not commensurate with the goal, either at the government level or the commercial level,” she notes.

It will take a strong scientific rationale to justify the expense, suggests UCLA’s Dr. Karagozian.

NASA’s budget is about 0.5 percent of total federal spending, according to federal budget documents, and it’s not going up when compared with inflation. Even if it rose at the rate of inflation, however, that still wouldn’t be enough to get to Mars, the NRC panel noted. It suggested increasing the agency’s human spaceflight budget by 5 percent per year.

But budgets reflect a government’s priorities. Here is where the goal of setting astronauts’ boots on new cosmic shores – still generally supported by the public in polls – runs into geopolitical realities. From China’s “treasure voyages” in the 15th century to the Lewis and Clark expedition and beyond, government-funded exploration has been conducted largely for political and economic purposes. For the US and the former Soviet Union, the space race was driven by the cold-war competition for global influence.

Presidents tend to give their strongest support to NASA when they are trying to achieve some foreign-policy goal for which space exploration and human spaceflight can add some luster, Roger Handberg, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, argues in the July issue of the journal Technology in Society. “The thrill of space is not gone but represents a much lower American priority,” he explains.

Ironically, the geopolitical changes that ended the cold war might provide a new opportunity: international cooperation. By the end of its construction in 2010, the International Space Station had become the largest – if most expensive – international peacetime construction project in history.

Politically speaking, cooperation on human spaceflight can bring insights into another country’s technological capabilities, be a tool to reduce tension, and help develop relationships that yield collaborations in other endeavors. From NASA’s perspective, bringing international partners on board not only brings additional expertise to a project but also spreads out the cost.

Leveraging relationships developed through the space station program, for instance, the European Space Agency is building the service modules Orion will use. China is another potential partner the US should be courting, although that generally is a tough sell in Washington, analysts say.

In the end, the drivers behind human exploration are likely to be a blend of competition and cooperation, Dittmar suggests.

With competition, “the trick is to manage it so that it confers the benefits it can create, without taking on a destructive momentum that leads to hostilities and armed conflict,” she explains.

But relying on the notion of a space race alone to sustain a meaningful human space exploration program is a shaky reed, she adds, noting that the exploration effort is likely to end once the race is seen as “won.”

“We need a balance between competition and cooperation,” she holds.

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